Ando Isamu, SJ (Jesuit Social Center)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 149 / May 20th, 2009
A controversial bill to revise the immigration laws has been presented to the Japanese national Diet to be approved before the current Diet session ends at the beginning of June.
One of the most basic changes in the legislation is a total control to be given to the central government, the Justice Ministry. The bill, open to public discussions by the lawmakers, has already drawn criticism from citizens’ groups and from some legislators of the opposition parties, as well as from the Japanese Bar Association. Nevertheless, the problem remains with the politicians, and since their constituencies do not give much weight to issues concerning foreign residents, these issues will not influence their election.
Foreign Residents Remain out of the Public Discussions
Foreign residents have been badly hit by the prolonged economic crisis. Many have lost their unstable jobs and their daily lives are in danger of total collapse. Many are seriously thinking of going home but they cannot afford the expense involved, especially those that came years ago from far away regions like Latin America. The present crisis has opened up various hidden social taboos, like the friction between the Japanese and foreign communities. This was true – is it still true – regarding Koreans living in Japan. I experienced it clearly when the first Vietnamese Boat People reached Japan, already in the late ’70s. They were officially told to look for other countries to settle down. Japan was not a choice.
In order to build ethnic reconciliation bridges like exchanges and positive dialogue between Japanese and foreign residents, the public role of government is very important regarding this issue. So is education at home and in the schools. Of course, religions can always serve as good social catalysts. At present (2007), since there are over 2 million foreigners living in Japan, this can be considered an important national issue.
Japan wants to increase the number of tourists, foreign students, and young technicians from abroad and must accept the risk of having undocumented people. It cannot prevent that. To cut the flux of foreigners into Japan would be to act against the interest of the country. According to rather modest population predictions for the future, the population of Japan by the year 2050 will decrease by between 30 and 40 million. On top of that, a high percentage of the population will be senior citizens. In a global situation where more than 200 million people are moving out of their own countries annually, Asian neighbors, like Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, with increasing youth populations, look for opportunities to work in Japan. Actual Controversial Immigration Bill
In 1989 Japan revised the immigration law when Japanese politics were in great turmoil during the bubble economy years, but the revision was not fully discussed in the Diet. The results were an influx of Japanese-Brazilians and Peruvians, who numbered over 400,000 by the year 2007.
Today, 20 years later, in a different economic situation but in a similar political crisis, a revision of government-sponsored immigration laws is up for discussion in the Diet with the aim of getting the new bill passed at the beginning of June, when the Diet is expected to go into recess.
The main target is full control of foreign residents by the Justice Ministry, tightening immigration regulations on them. The alien registration cards will be replaced by new ones called “zairyu” containing IC chips. Foreigners are required to carry them at all times and failure to do so could occasion a fine of 200,000 yen. At the same time, not reporting promptly change of address, place of employment, marital status, etc are also subject to fines. The new bill seems to imply that the residency status of foreigners will be lost for failing to report new addresses to the officials.
In fact, the present dual administrative structure, with the central government granting residency permits and the local municipalities issuing alien registration cards and other services, will cease to exist and everything will be concentrated in Immigration alone, so that resident registrations, for instance, would be handled by the Justice Ministry, not by the local municipalities where foreigners live. There are, nevertheless, some positive points, like the concession of 5-year residency permits (at present, these are only for 3 years) and the acquisition of social insurances.
The undue official surveillance and centralization included in the new immigration bill have raised the opposition of many groups. Besides that, foreigners now are able to approach over 1,787 local municipalities which are in contact with their daily lives but, if the new bill is enacted, they will only have the choice of looking for 76 immigration offices, all over Japan. Moreover, and this is the big difference from municipalities, such offices are not in contact with foreign residents’ daily lives. Given the increasing number of divorced spouses – especially foreign wives – due to domestic violence, the change will create serious issues. As a result, the number of their children unable to attend school will increase.